Coronavirus, racism and Asian-Australian representation. Part 2 of a series on racism.

Jun 23, 2020

The emergence of the coronavirus in Wuhan China has led to a rise and return of racist and xenophobic attitudes in Australia towards Chinese-Australians and those of seemingly “Chinese” appearance. The fear, anxiety and uncertainty of the pandemic have fuelled ignorance and hate spreading beyond Chinese-Australians to other Asian-Australians with some now living in fear worrying whether their fellow Australians will accept and embrace them like before.

Despite being in Australia since the 1800s and the contributions Chinese-Australians and Asian-Australians have made to Australia; our Australianness and sense of belonging is still fragile, delicate and prone to rupture. Someone said to me recently this is the time for we Asian-Australians to put our Australianness on display – whether it be volunteering and donating to charitable causes or wearing the Australian flag during national holidays, we need to show our fellow Australians we are just like them. Reflecting on these sentiments, I would argue we already do all of this and will strive to do more but the negative reactions to the coronavirus demonstrate this is clearly not enough.

To put an end to racism and racial scapegoating we need to do two things – achieve greater recognition of Asian-Australians in the Australian national story and increase representation of Asian-Australians in senior leadership roles across our public institutions and private corporations.

What we need is systemic change to occur within our institutions with commitments by leaders within the public and private sectors to develop measurable targets to increase cultural diversity representation in senior leadership positions – this means having more people of colour in positions of power, influence and authority. While some may see this as elitist, I see it as a vital path to strengthening our Australianness because having Asian-Australians in these positions changes perceptions, breaks down stereotypes and instils greater trust and confidence to ensure when a future crisis hits, we won’t be defined and judged by our ethnicity and race alone.

Responses to the coronavirus have reminded us how far Asian-Australians still have to go in entering the Australian national story and narrative. We see very little retelling of Asian-Australian stories or the celebration of their contributions to our nation. Growing up in Australia I had no Asian-Australian role models to look up to as there were very few Asian-Australians in public life and we didn’t learn about historical figures like Mei Quong Tart, Victor Chang and Billy Sing (Australia’s most successful sniper) at school. Asian-Australians growing up today are not shy of role models with Penny Wong, Adam Liaw, Dami Im, Anh Do, James Wan, Cindy Pan and Shemara Wikramanayake to name a few. We need to start thinking about how to include more of these stories in the Australian narrative because until we do, the Australianness of Asian-Australians will always be called into question.

Having better representation that reflects modern multicultural Australia gives Asian-Australians a stronger sense of self-esteem. We saw this firsthand with this year’s Masterchef Australia episode where an immunity challenge featured the cooking of instant noodles drew widespread celebration and acclaim from viewers of all backgrounds, but especially Asian-Australians as their childhood experiences and cultural heritage were on full display on national television. Writer and Broadcaster Benjamin Law described the episode “the real on-screen diversity we’ve all been waiting for” and a “real Sophie’s Choice moment” for every Asian-Australian in Australia.

Led by Masterchef Australia’s first ever judge of Asian-Australian heritage Melissa Leong, what made this season’s Masterchef more momentous is that all Asian-Australian contestants got there not because of tokenism but their skills, experience and expertise. While we should take a moment to celebrate this historical win for representation, we need to remember the fight is not over. The bamboo ceiling is still strong across our political and democratic institutions, universities, not for profit and corporate boardrooms and it is going to take all of us to work together to break the ceiling down once and for all.

On 8 April, I joined 16 prominent Chinese-Australians and Asian-Australians to sign an open letter calling for national unity. We have been overwhelmed by the support and encouragement of our fellow Australians with the online Unity Over Fear petition garnering over 85,000 signatures and counting. The petition itself was presented to the Parliament of Australia earlier this month.

Many of our supporters expressed disappointment that we felt the need to undertake this task of publishing such an open letter, but the fact of the matter is when a China-related incident occurs, the reactions we receive force us in many ways to justify our Australianness. To quote the instigator of the open letter, businessman and company director Jason Yat-Sen Li, there hasn’t been such a prominent gathering of Chinese-Australians and Asian-Australians since the 1990s with the arrival on the scene of Pauline Hanson. I know from personal experience working within the Chinese-Australian community for many years how difficult it is to obtain consensus with a group like this. But if there’s anything that could bring together a prominent group consisting of authors, writers, advocates, innovators, company directors, chefs, it is our loyalty to and love of Australia.

It doesn’t matter whether we were born here or were granted citizenship, we Asian-Australians have strived to earn our Australianness and as such, regardless of the circumstances, should never allow anyone to tell us we are not Australian. Let’s continue to call out racism, challenge privilege and speak against prejudice but until we have a true reflection of Australian multiculturalism and cultural diversity in our corporate executive boardrooms, media outlets and parliaments, racist attitudes and perceptions will persist and prejudices will remain unchallenged. And until we start recognising our history and celebrate our contribution at the mainstream level, Asian-Australians will always be seen as outsiders with our Australianness and sense of belonging constantly called into question.

 Jieh-Yung Lo is Director of the Centre for Asian-Australian Leadership at the Australian National University

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